Advice from The University of Law on the best approach.
The deadline for training contract applications for many law firms is at the end of July. But it’s never too early to start making your plans and preparing for a key task in progressing your legal career.
1. Don’t apply to every law firm in Britain
Not only does it eat time to apply to too many law firms, but the associated mass copy and pasting gives candidates’ applications an impersonal feel. Far better to select a group of firms which appeal to you – and specialise in areas of law that you would like to work in – and then target them specifically. So if, for example, you have an interest in international corporate law, media law and litigation, pick a handful of firms of varying sizes which specialise in each area – and focus all your research on them. Don’t worry if your list contains an unlikely assortment of outfits – no one else will see it – or if it changes as you conduct your research. The important thing is to have a starting point.
2. Figure out what makes the firms you’re applying to different from their competitors
Law firms can appear, at face value, to be near-identical institutions differentiated only by their branding. But look ‘under the bonnet’ at their annual financial results and you often discover major differences. A guiding principle for UK corporate firms is that the most high-value work is done by the ‘Magic Circle’ of Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Allen & Overy, with levels of legal complexity generally dropping as you move down the top 50. But there are many exceptions to this rule, with some smaller firms boasting market-leading niche expertise in a particular speciality. Candidates who know where all firms fit into this legal market hierarchy – and the current state their chosen firms find themselves in relative to rivals during changing times – have a major advantage.
3. Understand the bigger picture
The quickest way to get a handle on how the legal profession is developing is to read one of the books that have been published on it recently. Steve Weiner’s 21st Century Solicitor and Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers are both highly readable, up-to-date reflections on the developing legal market that can be digested in a couple of days. And if you’re really in a hurry, you could always read one of the many reviews of these books in the legal press that are available online.
4. Explain why you want to spend your life practising law
When it comes to the detail of the application form itself, the first thing candidates need to do – after accurately filling out their personal information without making any spelling mistakes, of course – is to articulate why they want to be lawyers. On the one hand, this involves explaining why you enjoy law. There should be, hopefully, plenty of experiences from university to draw upon here. As you write, it’s important to angle these experiences to the practise of law, rather than simply the study of the subject. This is where pro bono experience is invaluable.
5. Explain why you want to spend your life doing other things professionally
The second limb of explaining why you want to be a lawyer involves demonstrating your understanding of the limits of the law, and why you will need other attributes to succeed at the firm you’re applying to. For corporate firms – which account for a large proportion of training contracts – this means showing that you are commercially aware.
6. Get the tone right
Many training contract application forms include one light-hearted question among the heavier stuff. For example, DLA Piper asks its applicants to ‘Describe an unusual situation you have found yourself in, humorous or otherwise’. What firms are partially doing here is gauging how well candidates would fit in as members of a team working in an office environment – where, even in law firms, there are plenty of relaxed moments. As a result, it’s important to get the tone of your answer right. Try too hard to be hilarious and you risk getting your application binned on the grounds of being a potential village idiot. But respond in a way lacking any humour and there is a danger of coming across as an automaton who might not relate well to colleagues and clients.
7. Avoid extra-curricular overload
The key to answering the traditional application form question about your outside interests and activities is again to consider what the law firm wants to discover by asking it. To an extent, the question is an attempt to gear the hiring process to recruit more interesting people, but perhaps more importantly it’s a way of finding out how capable a candidate is at juggling lots of different things at the same time. For example, someone who keeps up a healthy range of extra-curricular activities while also obtaining a good degree result is probably well-organised and able to handle stress well. These are key attributes for a lawyer. So, rather than present yourself as someone with a spectacular breadth of interests, it’s better to show that you are simply a person who is inclined to lead a balanced, interesting life.
8. Recognise that the application form is just the beginning
A related, and final, point is to be genuine in your application answers. You are, after all, aiming to set yourself up for the next stage of the process: an interview. Presenting yourself as someone you are not may, on occasion, help wannabe lawyers get through the first application sift, but inauthenticity tends to unravel in the high-pressure environment of face-to-face questions from senior lawyers. Law firms, most of all, want graduates who are confident enough to be themselves.